Mark Reviews Movies

The Man from U.N.C.L.E.


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Guy Ritchie

Cast: Henry Cavill, Armie Hammer, Alicia Vikander, Elizabeth Debicki, Luca Calvani, Sylvester Groth, Hugh Grant, Jared Harris, Christian Berkel, Misha Kuznetsov

MPAA Rating: PG-13 (for action violence, some suggestive content, and partial nudity)

Running Time: 1:56

Release Date: 8/14/15

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Review by Mark Dujsik | August 13, 2015

Style dominates all else in The Man from U.N.C.L.E., a movie that barely allows itself the time to establish its plot and characters before trying to have a chuckle at both. It's partly successful, although credit for the majority of that success deserves to go to the trio of leading actors, who seem to have a better understanding of the joke than co-writer/director Guy Ritchie enables us to have. The basics of the movie's central joke are simple: telling a story about world-saving espionage with a lot of winking. That's all we get out of it, so maybe it isn't so much that the actors are more aware of the joke as that they are quite good at winking.

The narrative, which gives us the back story to the television series of the same name, is a different story. It's a bit messy, if only because Ritchie and co-screenwriter Lionel Wigram hit the ground running. That method could work, but it can also result in slamming one's face violently into the ground. Here, the result is closer to the latter.

After an opening credits montage detailing the escalation of the Cold War, the movie settles in East Berlin in 1963 to introduce Napoleon Solo (Henry Cavill), a master thief who was recruited by the CIA. Actually, the screenplay provides us with those details about the character in the middle of an ensuing chase sequence. That storytelling decision serves as a prime example of the movie's method: to clarify vital information about plot and character only when it is absolutely necessary for things to movie forward—never before, sometimes and quite oddly after the story already has moved forward, and regardless of the context of what is actually happening.

Solo is on the Soviet side of the Berlin Wall to extricate Gaby Teller (Alicia Vikander), an auto mechanic whose father was the top rocket scientist for the Nazis. He has gone missing, and by no coincidence, Gaby's uncle Rudi (Sylvester Groth) is suspected of developing a nuclear warhead.

Solo and Gaby's escape attempt is hindered by Illya Kuryakin (Armie Hammer), a KGB agent with a short-fused temper who has been ordered to detain Gaby so that the Soviets can find her father. His efforts fail, but in order to stop a threat to the world, the CIA and KGB decide to make Solo and Illya partners for a mission in Rome to infiltrate Rudi's organization, which includes his fanatical daughter Victoria (Elizabeth Debicki) and womanizing son-in-law Alexander (Luca Calvani). None of the undercover players trust or seem to like each other very much.

While the plot may seem to be of the "simplicity itself" variety, it is routinely obscured, either intentionally or unintentionally, by Ritchie's stylistic choices. There are a few scene in which key information is kept from the audience, only to be revealed a minute or so later when the entirety of the scene plays out again. It's a strange choice, since the immediacy of the reveal eliminates any sense of ambiguity or tension to the editing trick.

Such instances seem simply to be Ritchie trying something different for the sake of trying. Some of it is superficially interesting, such as the way he uses music or, in one moment, the windows of a car as a cloak to mute dialogue (In the scene in the car, there are still subtitles for what the characters are saying, so what, really, is the point?). These flourishes mostly come across as unnecessary, occasionally irritating ones.

Most of the obfuscation, though, comes from the general tone of the movie. It's breezy, although perhaps too much so—enough to blow away any genuine interest in these characters and any actual stakes within the plot. None of what's here, really, matters to Ritchie, as long as it gives him an opportunity to show how above it all he is. That laissez-faire attitude works at times. There's an amusing boat chase in which the focus shifts mid-pursuit to follow Solo taking a break with some tunes and a conveniently placed picnic basket, while Illya fights for his life in the background. It doesn't always work. A torture scene uses the horrors of the Shoah as a setup to cheaply up the stakes, and then the scene becomes distasteful in an entirely different way.

The lead actors, though, are having more targeted fun than Ritchie, which at least makes the movie interesting to watch as an exercise in comic acting. Here, by the by, is an intriguing bit of international casting: a Brit playing an American, an American playing a Russian, and a Swede playing a German. Cavill is a debonair straight man, getting a lot of mileage from his deadpan baritone. Hammer's harsh accent emphasizes his character's rage bristling just beneath the surface. Vikander displays flashes of inspired physical comedy (a dance scene, in particular) that gives her straitlaced character a playful side to which she seems oblivious.

We can sense what The Man from U.N.C.L.E. is attempting to do, but it simply feels like an attempt. The pieces for a light-hearted yet subversive comedy are here, but they're never assembled in a narratively or tonally coherent way.

Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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